Title: From Winter To Spring

Disclaimer: I don't own any characters from the anime, Naruto, but they are superb story fodder, aren't they now?

Summary: After the first time Sakura took part in the chuunin selection exams and failed, she tried once more before undergoing intensive training to better herself, while Naruto and Sasuke both passed and moved on. Their team split, but now that Sakura's all alone an unlikely antihero steps up to make her exam taking team complete: Gaara of the Desert. (GaaraSakura as best as I am able, which may not be very promising, because it is my first fanfiction piece ever.)

Chapter 1: Winter's Entrance

The moon hung high above the treetops, bathing the Hidden Village of Leaf in its silvery light. Though the time read as 8 P.M., it was already pitch-black outside due to the winter daylight schedule being thrown off balance. Along with the early night came the biting cold, Sakura glanced up at the star flecked sky while grumbling to herself under her breath. "It's too early for winter… it was just summer a while ago."

She had finished her daily training a few minutes prior, focusing her energies, which would have centered on bugging Sasuke a few years before, on building better hand-to-hand combat skills and improving her speed. This translated to physical pain, enduring endless running and sparring with anyone willing to help. Just today her sparring partner had been Rock Lee, an old friend and fellow shinobi. They walked together at the moment, their sparring match a pleasant memory still fresh in their minds.

"Sakura-chan, you certainly have improved your combat skills these past months. Do you plan to continue your rigorous physical training much longer?"

Bathed in the early moon's pale glow, Sakura sent him a smile and nodded resolutely. "Yes. I realized that while I watched Sasuke and Naruto progress, I wasn't going anywhere with my skills. If I don't work on strengthening my weaknesses then I'll fall behind indefinitely."

"I see. Then it's been a while, huh?"

Sakura's smile seemed to lose a fraction of its previous strength as she realized what he was asking. Sasuke… Naruto… Her heart squeezed within her chest, but she refused to acknowledge the pain she felt at the slightest thought about her team. She stopped walking, turned on her heel, and started back the way she came.

"Sakura-chan?" Lee put a hand on her shoulder, wide eyes sending her a look of confusion and concern. "Where are you going?"

Steeling herself emotionally, she put her hand on his before prying his away gently. She grinned at him as naturally as she could to assay his worries. "I forgot! I need to do some more laps around the training ground before I go home. Thanks for your help sparring, Lee-san, I'll talk to you tomorrow!"

With that, she took off at a spirited jog toward the training area. Lee shook his head, but left her to finish her routine in peace.

As soon as she was sure he was out of sight, Sakura leaned back against a tree bordering the training grounds. The solidity of the tree's bark dug into her back, pricks of physical pain taking her mind away from the emotional anguish of being left behind by her teammates. It was years after their first attempt at chuunin exams, Sasuke and Naruto were already well on their way to becoming jounin. Sakura, after her initial failure at the exam once against Ino, and again the year after, had decided to better herself before attempting again a few years later. She was now 17 years old, nearly 18, and had yet to take the exam for the third time.

Her hands shook with frustration as Sakura lashed out with one fist at the darkened shape of a training stump. The dark shape moved to the side, shocking Sakura so much she forgot to pull her punch and toppled to the ground under the full weight of her missed strike. Landing on her wrist, she rolled to the right to avoid damaging her hand anymore than she had already. "Fuck… who moved that training post!!"

"Training post…" From the shadows cast by the surrounding pine trees, a quiet, dry voice rasped through the night breeze toward her ears. In a no-questions-asked tone, the person stated, "Who's a training post."

"Who's there?" Sakura demanded, the breeze ruffling her short, pink hair. The wind blew passed her face, bringing hints of sand particles with it. She rubbed at her eyes as a fleck of sand irritated it.

He stepped out of the shadow into the light of a nearly full moon; face slightly upturned with arrogance, but expression emotionless. "Gaara of the Desert."

Sakura's emerald eyes seemed to bulge out of her head from shock. She tried to make the words come out, honestly she did, however all attempts at coherent speech collapsed into hacking coughs. She managed to unfasten the tiny pouch on her leg and pull out a kunai before a small wave of sand knocked the blade from her grasp, injuring her hand with the relentless blow. Gaara's derisive scowl informed her that trying to reach for another knife would end in much bloodier results than a hurt hand.

"Pathetic," he growled, crossing his arms over his chest as he glared down at her. "Pick yourself up."

Wobbling with physical exhaustion from her day of training and mental weariness from having to face an old for, Sakura rose to her feet, both hands more or less rendered useless from a sprained wrist and her encounter with Gaara's sand attack. "What do you want? Why are you at the training grounds?"

"Questions…" Gaara muttered, rolling his eyes slightly. She was annoying him already with the questions. "I didn't come here to hurt you, but I will if you bother me."

"But… you're in Konoha. Why are you here?"

"Shut up," he told her, eyes intense. "Chuunin selection exam is soon. I was sent to pass this time."

That's right... those four years ago, the test was called off so he didn't pass. So he hasn't tried again since then? Sakura's eyes widened as the realization hit her. "You haven't retaken the exam since then?"

His glare was meant to make her regret her inquires and cower in fear, but only fueled her curiosity. "What about your siblings?"

"They took the test last year, both passed."

"So you're the only one left from your team that hasn't made it through the exam?"

"I haven't taken it to pass yet. My mental instability caused the examiners to refuse my entry into the test until I can prove my progress."

"So you're alone now? No team?"

"Teammates are a weakness." Gaara raised his hand to rub his forehead tiredly. "I have my gourd."

"So you do…" her eyes wandered to the bulky, no doubt heavy, cracked gourd he lugged around on his back as usual. "I bet it doesn't talk back like a teammate does."

He gave her a strange look that she couldn't quite decipher before taking a step toward her. Then another. Within three steps he had invaded her personal space, and she braced herself for anything he might do, holding her breath nervously. He didn't pause or change his expression. On the fourth step he walked passed her and continued to walk away from the training ground.